By BRET MOSS Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
DURANT, Okla. – The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) will be repatriating 124 of their ancestor’s remains this coming spring. This is a great success in more ways than one, and for more tribes than just the Choctaw Nation.
The remains of ancestors are sacred to many Native American tribes, and the Choctaw Tribe is no exception. These 124 remains are believed to be around 500 years old, based on cultural material and records from the past, and hold great significance to members of several tribes from the Southeastern United States. The people of the Choctaw Nation have long believed that the deceased will become one with the earth. “It is a traditional Choctaw belief that when people die, their spirits take a journey to the Land of Souls, and part of that is their body going back into the ground,” explains Dr. Ian Thompson, Choctaw Tribal Archaeologist. These remains were taken from their place of burial decades ago during two separate excavations, one in the 1950s and the other in the 1960s. This was a time when archaeologists were looking to amass large quantities of Native American remains for their collections. These remains were taken without the consultation of the tribes to which they belong. Most consider this desecration a tragedy of the severest kind. Now that the Choctaw Nation has reacquired their ancestor’s remains, they plan to rebury them. This is done out of respect to the individuals who have passed away, as well as the family that originally laid them to rest in the earth centuries ago, said Thompson. Other than sheer respect for the departed, the Choctaw belief is that “where they were buried, the soil around them is part of them,” mentions Terry Cole, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Cole went on to explain that, when a body starts to deteriorate, the physical body is absorbed into the ground around the grave. This makes the area around the grave sacred. The remains are not only important to the Choctaw people, but are significant to numerous other tribes. The remains are believed to be those of the Taensa tribe, who lived in the area at that time. They are identified as such by the material culture, location, early written records and the way that the burials were put in the ground, said Thompson. “They are one of tribes who lived near the Choctaw, and for a time they lived among the Choctaw and they intermixed,” therefore some of today’s Choctaw people have Taensa lineage, continued Thompson.
The Taensa also lived near and intermixed with the Alabama and the Chitimacha at different times, therefore, those same tribes of today can also trace their linage back to the group being repatriated. Today, several tribes have affiliation with these remains, such as the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, the Alabama-Coushatta and several others. This reburial act of respect is for more than just the Choctaw Nation, but is a great success for multiple tribes. The return of these remains is a significant and spiritual event for Choctaw Nation that has been guided by a NAGPRA Advisory Board, made up of distinguished Choctaw people from various walks of life.
Similarly, the reburial is a very spiritual process and will be handled with great care by all involved. Several Choctaw spiritual and religious advisors will direct the reburial, and out of respect for the departed, no large equipment will be used to put the remains back into the ground. Individuals working on the reburial will hand dig every grave with a shovel in order to keep the process as respectful and traditional as possible. The remains will be placed in the most precise way as can be determined to match how they originally came from the earth. This may seem like a great deal of work, but to those involved, it is worth every bit of work. “It is not something great that we do, it is something great that we are allowed to do. Its a privilege to get to honor the ancestors,” said Thompson as he described his feelings toward the repatriation. Cole followed by mentioning that the ancestors have handed down responsibilities to the generation of today and one of those responsibilities is to take care of those who have passed away. “It is our responsibility and our job.” This great honor is not just for the Choctaw Nation, but for all the tribes to which the remains are affiliated. The Choctaw Nation Department of Historic Preservation has invited those certain tribes to partake in this event as well. The process of obtaining the remains was not completed by just a dedicated few, but by a dedicated many. The Coalition of Southeast Tribes, which includes a number of Native Tribes, has been working to improve the process that tribes must use to obtain remains. This process is dictated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which is a federal law passed in 1990. The road that led to this particular reburial began when the tribe was first consulted in 2002 when a federal institution, the Natchez Trace Parkway, under requirements of NAGPRA, went through their collection of human remains and found that particular remains could be traced to the Choctaw Nation. Since then, the research compiled about these remains had lead to the conclusion that they are of Choctaw affiliation. The Choctaw Nation filed a Repatriation Claim in 2009 and in turn, the institution published an Intent to Repatriate to a national publication - the Federal Register. In working with the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Choctaw Nation requested a Ground Penetrating Radar survey of the original burial site to better understand how the remains were buried and subsequently removed. The Natchez Trace Parkway then took a thorough inventory of their collection and found that some of the collection had been dispersed to other locations. The Choctaw Nation had them assemble the collection as a whole. Cameron H. Sholly, Superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and Christina Smith, Cultural Resource Manager for the Natchez Trace Parkway, who have been working very closely with Choctaw Nation through the repatriation process, will be at the Choctaw tribal headquarters on Feb. 23 in Durant to sign the Repatriation Agreement. This document officially transfers the custody of the remains to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Within Choctaw Nation, this work is of such a sensitive and important nature, a NAGPRA Advisory Board has been assembled within the tribe to give the Historic Preservation Department direction on how to proceed with repatriations and reburials. This is a group of ten members, including tribal elders, traditional people and tribal council members. A great deal of effort has been poured into this endeavor; individuals throughout the Choctaw Nation and many others who have handled various aspects of the repatriation. Through this work, the Department of Historic Preservation has made progress that will help with future repatriation. “Through this, we are building positive relations with the National Park Service in the Southeast, and those relationships will make it much easier to repatriate other ancestors who need to be brought back to their homes, ” said Thompson. Thompson went on to tell, that in times past, that burial sites like this one have been subject to grave looters and other malicious activity. He stressed that to disturb the reburial site, and those like it, would be to commit a federal offense.